From the Caribbean to Carbon County
Anyone who has never had the opportunity to speak with a group of young people from the Dominican Republic is missing out on an amazing experience. Just 20 minutes spent with a group of students participating in the Global Academy program at USU Eastern left me imprinted by the jubilant nature.
"We celebrate everything," said Johnny Ruiz, amongst group-wide cheering. "If the light goes out, we rejoice. And when the light comes back on, we rejoice again. It's part of who we are."
Ruiz was one of a collection of about 15 students, out of 57 participating, who chose to interview with me following their morning classes. While their enthusiastic nature is intoxicating during conversation, it should not be misinterpreted as a lack of seriousness, as these 18- to 24-year-olds competed against 10,000 other students to receive this trip.
According to Steve Nelson, USU Eastern's Spanish Specialist, the trip is a cap-stone event for the students as well as a travel reward and cultural study. The program is paid for by the Dominican government as a reward for the students' hard work.
"Learning English well is a huge asset for those in other countries," said Nelson. "And these students represent the best all around participants in a one year English immersion program in the Dominican."
The students' time is jam packed as they not only attend upwards of six classes but are taken on at least one cultural activity trip per week.
Concerning education, three morning English classes including reading, writing and listening/speaking are taught. Academic courses including paleontology, film and history in the afternoon concentrate on teaching the language in a different manner while spreading additional knowledge.
Sitting down with the students halfway through their trip, it became immediately clear that these vibrant and intelligent individuals had formed lasting opinions about Eastern Utah and Price and are amazed by what they have seen.
"It's great to be here, everyone is so nice and everything is so organized," said Arturo Mendez, an outspoken member of the group who seemed a natural leader among his peers. "Even when you go to the bathroom here, it's different, it's clean."
For Mendez and virtually all of this companions, the lack of trash to be found in Utah is incredible. Equally amazing is the courtesy of American drivers. However, I have to believe that's because they haven't had the pleasure of driving along side them just yet. Their praise ran more to local drivers' treatment of pedestrians.
"When you are going to cross the street here, the cars stop," said Arturo in a shocked voice. "But in the Dominican, it doesn't happen. You have to wait until they pass."
While the courtesy of local drivers and lack of public trash have been wonderful, the dry climate and "bland food" have been difficult for the group of students to tolerate.
"It's so dry. In the DR it's very humid. Here you don't sweat," said Rosa Mendez. "I was playing volleyball for like an hour and I noticed I wasn't sweating. But I'm thirsty all the time and no matter how much I drink, I'm dry."
When asked about coping with the desert, 15 students simultaneously raised a bottle of water and a tube of lip balm. Clothes washing has also been an issue as many of the students can now be seen wearing Barbie size replicas of their former gear
"We hang dry everything in the DR, but here you use a dryer," said Rudy Rusell. "We didn't understand the shrinking problem and now some of us are wearing doll clothes."
Their understanding of the our language is amazing as even small pieces of the local dialect have begun to creep their way into conversation. After only one year of learning, these students could easily make their way in America, provided they can located their native spices. Aside from the lip and skin problems, the group has had a hard time finding what they need to bring some life into the "vanilla" cuisine of North America.
"We haven't been able to find the equipment we need," said Gislle Cedeno. "We have set off the fire alarm several times."
Frugal by nature, the students did report enjoying Beto's and McDonald's in downtown Price but were clear about the liking to cook their own food whenever possible.
Where the food lacks flavor, the instructors do not.
"The education is amazing," said Arturo. "It's so focused and you learn, you really learn. It makes me feel very happy because you feel that the teacher is interesting and you keep something in your mind. Also you have so many books and you have Internet all the time here. In the Dominican if you want Internet you have to pay, always."
The students were amazed that they are able to run and play in the street. They expressed disbelief that so many roads are used by so few cars. The lack of noise was difficult to get used to for many students but after a few days, even this difference began to get comfortable.
"It's never quiet anywhere where we are from," said Tairi Lora. "The Dominican is very loud, always. You can't every hear yourself think, but here you can stay out till midnight, walk and you feel safe."
When asked about their favorite activity so far, the group immediately settled on their river rafting excursion in Green River.
"In the DR, that's just for rich people," said Arturo. "And we got to go for free. It's great.."
While the students are proud of their homeland, they were also candid about the problems their society is facing. When asked about swimming in coastal areas of DR, they conveyed that because of trash and pollution many areas are not safe for swimming.
The students were invited to USU Eastern as part of the ongoing Utah State University Global Academy. Because of the close relationship developed between Utah State and the DR, the university has been able to branch out and provide summer offerings for students in English immersion programs.
Future activities will include tours of Goblin Valley, Nine Mile, the San Rafael Reef, Arches and Canyonlands, and the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry.